Media Gets First Look At Children Inside Nogales Detention Facility

June 18, 2014

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)
Detainees are escorted to an area to make phone calls as hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held in Nogales, Ariz.
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)
Two female detainees sleep in a holding cell as children are separated by age group and gender. Hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held in Nogales, Ariz.
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)
Detainees watch a World Cup soccer match from a holding cell at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Nogales, Ariz.
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)
Two young girls watch a World Cup soccer match on television from their holding area in Nogales, Ariz.

NOGALES, Ariz. — On Wednesday morning, members of the media were allowed their first visit inside the Nogales, Ariz., processing center that is temporarily housing 900 children apprehended while crossing the border alone. Since May 31, the center has been used to accommodate a surge of Central American kids.

The tour comes after members of Congress, including Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, put pressure on the Department of Homeland Security to open the facility to media. At the start of the tour, Customs and Border Protection officials announced a slew of rules: no interviews with children, officials couldn't be quoted by name, no audio recorders.

The Nogales Placement Center is about 120,000 square feet and was never designed to house children. Inside, there are different areas, or holding cells, that are fenced off and have razor wire at the top. Children are divided by gender and age. They had sleeping mats and blankets that look like foil.

According to Customs and Border Protection, the center's capacity is 1154.

Officials said the kids have been watching the World Cup on televisions inside the holding areas.

Trailers with showers are up and running outside of the facility, and the children are now bathing when they arrive. Officials said they are introducing a uniform of white shirts and blue shorts, but many children seen on Wednesday were not yet wearing the uniform.

Outside, there is a tent providing some shade over asphalt. The children are being rotated to play outdoors with hula hoops, basketballs and soccer balls.

Most of the children in the Nogales facility came across the border in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, though some are also crossing through Arizona. 

"They are just turning themselves in," said Art Del Cueto, president of Tucson's Border Patrol union. "They are coming directly to Border Patrol, to the vehicles, and saying 'Hey, I am Guatemalan, or whatever, and I am turning myself in.' That is basically what is going on."

Some of the children are even turning themselves in at border crossings. Statistics from last week that were provided to the Guatemalan consulate showed that among the children in the Nogales facility, about 35 had walked up to the Arizona-Mexico border and turned themselves in to Customs and Border Protection workers.

Most of the children are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. A mix of violence, gangs and false rumors about U.S. immigration policies seems to have propelled unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied Central American kids to cross the border in recent months.

As for what happens next, the government is trying to get children processed out within 72 hours. From the Nogales center, they are transferred into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. They are going either to military bases in California, Texas and Oklahoma that have been set up as an emergency measure, or to shelters designated for this population, some of which are in Phoenix.

From there they will be placed with family members on the condition they appear for immigration court proceedings. Consular officials who have interviewed the children say a very large portion of these children are trying to reunite with parents who are here in the United States.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said last week that recent border crossers, including children, are a priority for deportation proceedings. But Del Cueto says he is worried these children won’t appear for their immigration hearings.

"Upon talking to the individuals and the kids myself, they have said, 'hey religious groups told us down there, media groups told us, this is a free ticket we are not going to have to go back,'" Del Cueto said.

Later this week, Vice President Joe Biden is meeting with leaders of Central American countries to discuss what can be done about the exodus of children.

Updated 6/18/2014 at 5:13 p.m.